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Establish robust, constructive framework to engage family lawyers

Senior Minister of State for Law Indranee Rajah said in Parliament last month that the Ministry of Law will continue to partner and support family lawyers to facilitate the effective practice of family law (Parliament: Panel to be formed to study ways to improve family justice system; ST Online, Nov 6).

While close engagement with stakeholders is certainly welcome, it is neither healthy nor wise for our family justice system to become overly dependent on family lawyers - who are ultimately driven by commercial interests.

Overcharging is common in the industry, with fees for divorce cases ranging from $10,000 to over $100,000. It is also not uncommon to hear of lawyers fomenting conflict between parties in divorce and other family-related proceedings - by encouraging their clients to distort and exaggerate events - preventing early settlement and resulting in a possibly undesirable outcome.

Such tactics are not just unethical, but are also an affront to the good work of other stakeholders in the family justice system.

The proposed Family Law Practitioner accreditation framework should be developed with clear and measurable objectives in mind to deliver positive outcomes for our family justice system.

There should be a cap or benchmark on the fees that family law practitioners charge for the services they provide. Accredited family lawyers should be incentivised and evaluated based on their record of achieving an amicable resolution for their clients. One indicator, for example, could be whether lawyers are able to successfully encourage their clients to attend counselling before filing for divorce.

Procedures and processes in the Family Justice Courts (FJC) should be made fully transparent and navigable by lay persons - just like any other public government services.

Contrary to what is currently happening, there should be no need for someone to engage a lawyer to go through a divorce or other family-related proceedings.

A strong uncompromising stance should be taken against lawyers who act in unethical ways or foment conflict among parties. This will send a strong signal that abuse of the system will not be tolerated.

While the establishment of the FJC in 2014 as a specialised court is generally regarded as a positive step in adjudicating family disputes in Singapore, it is critical to also get its focus, direction and implementation right - so we do not end up with unintended outcomes.

Jocelyn Wong Jia Min (Ms)

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 17, 2017, with the headline 'Establish robust, constructive framework to engage family lawyers'. Print Edition | Subscribe